The Stars My Destination was originally serialized in 1956 across four issues of Galaxy Magazine and then a year later released as a novel from author Alfred Bester. Broadly it reimagines Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in the 25th century (24th in some versions of the book) and carries along with it complex commentaries concerning many of the social ills of the 1950’s.
Stylistically the book resembles the gangster movies of the preceding decades, the lead character, Gully Foyle, even bearing a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart on some cover illustrations for the cover in some editions.
Gully Foyle is an anti-hero straight out of a gangster film, he is an amoral man out for his own needs rather than any higher ideal; but the secondary characters are no more pure in their behaviour, routinely switching sides and betraying Foyle at the drop of a trilby.
It isn’t that Foyle doesn’t deserve such treatment; he is a vicious man in all his encounters with others. He’s a murderer and rapist who seem to take part in such crimes for the sheer sake of it rather than any gain he would get from it.
He doesn’t even seem to take joy from his crimes, or even from the pain of others, he partakes in such activities just for the sake of doing so.
Gully Foyle is possibly the most inhuman protagonist I have ever encountered in a science fiction novel, a character that exists on a basic animal urge that I have difficulty calling “evil” but have no other word that comes close as a description.
If a reader is to play Devils Advocate, and with The Stars My Destination this is almost a necessity to enjoy the book, the way Foyle is treated makes his rage at the world a least a little understandable.
While drifting in space, the sole survivor of a raid that left his ship a shredded carcass and his shipmates frozen corpses, he is overwhelmed to see a ship approach that could serve his rescue from long months a hairsbreadth from freezing in space.
The ship flies close, close enough that Foyle is certain they have seen him, the ship even stops a moment as if appraising his situation.
Then it flies away, leaving him to his death.
This moment seeds the rage that begins a heartless drive for vengeance against the people who owned the ship, its captain and eventually the person who made the decision to leave him to die.
During this journey Gully Foyle is altered by his ordeal as well as by his treatment of others. It isn’t that Foyle becomes aware of his inhumanity to others, it’s more that he becomes aware of other peoples inhumanity to each other.
He discovers he is a common monster and it is this realization that sets him on a new and surprising course that results in a change for the whole of the human race.
The Stars My Destination is a very different kind of science fiction novel, it feels like a hard science fiction novel but it certainly isn’t one and it has the trappings of a space opera though, again, it certain isn’t one. It successfully navigates both terrains quite well and ends up as a type of science fiction that defies easy definition and manages to sit with the reader long after the book has been finished.
This isn’t to say the The Stars My Destination doesn’t have some flaws, some quite major ones in some instances, but it is to say that even the flaws themselves are quite interesting.
One complaint that is often raised is concerning the character of Robin Wednesbury who is described as a ‘tall, lovely Negro girl, brilliant and cultivated, but handicapped by the fact that she was a telesend’. A Telesend is a one way telepath who can only send thoughts and not receive them.
Obviously it’s not the inclusion of the character that people sometimes find fault with it’s the excessive (in their view) amount the author refers to her colour in the narrative. Whether Bester does over use racial description really depends on how sensitive a reader is to that kind of thing, personally I didn’t overly notice it at the time but on retrospect it may be a correct complaint. It is telling that I was more aware of Robin’s colouring than I was Olivia Presteign’s; and she was an albino!
However what I think is more important is that the author included such a character in the first place. She is educated and highly regarded, strong willed and littered with real human flaws; she is actually a very well rounded and interesting character whose choices make a significant difference during the unfolding of the story.
The fact that the author would take such a chance in alienating a potentially conservative audience of the 1950’s says a great deal about his views on inclusion and social change.
In my view, even if there is a flaw in the way he presents the character its worth suffering the flaw for her inclusion; and perhaps this is the thought that stays with me the most after reading Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.
The novel does not seem to be about perfection, it’s about flaws. It’s not set in a utopian future but rather in one which human beings have made the worst of the miraculous discoveries they have made. The novel is not about fixing these imperfections but expanding on them and with them the lessons we are able to learn from them.
What I took from the book is that perfection isn’t what makes a human being move forward; it’s the flaws in their nature that encourages them to overcome and better themselves.
I suppose what I took from the book was that we should not seek perfection, we should just seek to be better today than we were yesterday.